Piedmont Profile – Clai Martin – ‘You name it, we’ve dealt with it’
By Ronnie Gallagher
Know what true love is? Rhonda Martin will tell you it’s spending your wedding anniversaries and your birthdays eating hotdogs at the ballfield because your husband is coaching Little League.
Rhonda will also tell you it’s being a Tar Heel fan when your husband is a Blue Devil fan.
But that’s life with Clai Martin.
His official title when he’s at work is supervisor of Rowan County Animal Control.
His title away from work is ball coach, father, husband and taxi driver for their son, Seth, and daughter, Taylor. He and Rhonda are constantly on the road, taking daughter Taylor to a tournament with a travel softball team, and son Seth with a travel baseball team.
The biggest kid in the family may well be the man of the house.
Clai will turn 50 in January but he acts 30 years younger. He’s shagging flies with his baseball team in the summer and shooting jumpers with his basketball team in the winter.
“The kids crack up and call me an old man,” Martin laughs. “But I feel young when I’m out there. It’s the next day I feel old. Real old.”
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Martin knows people from all walks of life because of his job, his coaching and the fact his father, Bob, was the Rowan County sheriff for 12 years.
“It was an honor to see him as sheriff,” Martin said. “He knew a lot of people, which helped me become friends with a lot of people.”
His father instilled a competitive spirit in Clai. He was the first Mark Norris Award winner as a baseball star at Salisbury High before graduating in 1978.
“I was friends with Mark and thought so highly of his family,” said Martin, who was all-conference and all-county in baseball.
Sports figures were even a part of his father’s life. Bob would tell Clai stories of chasing NASCAR legend Junior Johnson during the moonshining days.
“Dad always said Junior was the best driver, by far, of all the moonshiners,” Martin said. “Dad would say, ‘I arrested a man for moonshining and here he is a millionaire compared to me.’ ”
A couple of weeks before Bob Martin died in 2004, he got a call Oó from Johnson.
“I thought that was great,” Clai said. “I know Dad cherished that phone call.”
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If Martin thought sports was a thrill a minute, he was in for an even more exciting life when he began working at Animal Control in 1996.
It took only one year for him to be a part of a story that no one will ever forget.
He was on call one night in 1997 when Sydney, a 200-pound chimpanzee, broke out of the Metro Zoo.
“I’m thinking, ‘What am I supposed to do about that?’ ” Martin said.
When he arrived at the scene, he said it was utter chaos.
“The Sheriff’s Department basically told me, ‘This is Animal Control. This case is yours.’ ”
For one week, Martin tracked Sydney, who had the mind of a 6-year-old and the strength of 10 humans. It was during this time Martin learned what the media was all about. Reporters from ABC and BBC called. TV stations were camped out throughout the chase.
Martin was amazed at the coverage.
“I told Jim Bradley of Channel 9, ‘Help me understand something. Is there nothing else going on in the state of North Carolina?’
“He told me, ‘Clai, any story on a child or an animal is front-page headlines and the top story on the news.”
Not every call Martin gets is as hectic. Horses and cows in the road, as well as some drama concerning raccoons, goats, dogs and cats are more the norm.
“You name it, we’ve dealt with it,” said Martin, who has served for 12 years as a board member for the statewide Animal Control Association, two as vice-president.
Martin gets great satisfaction when investigating cruelty cases.
“That’s a priority,” he said. “It’s a joy to rescue these animals. My job is made easier because I’ve got a great staff and a great director in Leonard Wood. We care deeply for these animals.”
But sometimes there are tough decisions to be made.
“A lot of these animals are better off with us than where they came from,” Martin said. “But the reality is, there aren’t enough homes for all of them. We don’t have enough room. It breaks your heart to euthanize them.”
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Martin doesn’t go home and relax when his workday ends. He and Rhonda, who works for Community One Bank, gather the kids and head ó where else ó to a ballfield.
Actually, it was Rhonda’s father, Ron Overcash, who got her husband into coaching in China Grove. Martin coached the Civitans, of which he has been a member for 11 years.
There were days when Martin would coach on the senior field, run down to the middle field to coach Seth, and then race over to the coach-pitch field to coach Taylor.
Rhonda has always been there, scurrying from one field to the other with him.
When basketball season arrives, the family spends many nights at Hall Gym and Hurley YMCA.
“We’re a close-knit family,” Martin said. “We spend a lot of time with our children.”
This past season, Martin was determined to call it quits as a coach.
“I was going to sit in the stands and watch,” Martin said. “I wasn’t going to coach anymore.”
Last week, the fall baseball season was going strong at Community Park. Seth Martin got some instruction from the first-base coach before he stepped into the batter’s box.
The tip came from Clai Martin.
“It’s just such a thrill coaching and teaching kids,” Martin said sheepishly.
For the record, Rhonda Martin’s birthday is June 3. Baseball season will be in full swing by then, so it’s pretty obvious where she’ll be celebrating it: at the ballfield with her husband.
Want chili on that hot dog, Rhonda?